The flu season has finally caught up with Jeff Scott Soto.
After a trip to Sweden, the vocalist for W.E.T., whose latest CD came out February 26th, has been sniffling up a storm, although he doesn’t think it’s actually that nasty flu bug that has been infecting hundreds across the country. “I’m battling a bit of a cold,” he told me last month. “The flu is the one going around and that’s the one I’m trying to make sure I don’t get.” For a vocalist with the range and pitch of Soto, colds, no matter how severe, can wreak havoc on the vocal cords. But Soto is also a trooper, continuing on with our interview and despite the scratchy throat, he is excited to talk about his band’s latest recording Rise Up
If the name Jeff Scott Soto sounds familiar but you can’t quite place what band he played in, all one has to say is Yngwie and it should immediately click. Singing on the Swedish guitar shredder’s first two albums in the mid-80’s prepared him for life on the road and in the heavy metal spotlight. Probably his most lucrative project was Talisman with former Yngwie bandmate, the late Marcel Jacob, who passed away in 2009. With nineteen years’ worth of albums and tours, the band still has a strong core audience. Soto was also a member of Journey for less than a year but his time in Trans Siberian Orchestra continues to this day.
With all those endeavors, some running simultaneously, it’s no surprise that Soto has re-teamed up with his W.E.T. co-horts Erik Martensson and Robert Sall – as well as Magnus Henriksson and Robban Back – to create the first W.E.T. record since their debut album in 2009. The convergence has been rejuvenating and Rise Up’s sound is fresh and satisfying with spirited, sometimes heartfelt lyrics, and catchy foot-tapping choruses, as on the single “Learn To Live Again” and the anthemic “Still Unbroken.”
So germs be damned, Soto talked with us about his youth, what he learned from Yngwie Malmsteen and what it was like being back with W.E.T.
You are a very tall gentleman yet I hear you used to drive a little Ford Fiesta.
(laughs) My God, where did you get that information from?Oh, I know people
Oh, that’s funny (laughs) Most cars if you put the seat back at maximum length, even somebody 6’3 can fit in one of those (laughs).
So I think the smallest car I’ve fit into, not comfortably, is a Mini Cooper.I don’t know how you did that.
Yeah, that was a rough one (laughs) but I didn’t buy it or drive it, I just wanted to see if I fit in it.
Where did you grow up and what did you like to do when you were a kid?
Well, I grew up in the Valley. We moved from New York when I was eight years old and I pretty much grew up and went to school and did everything in the San Fernando Valley. It was always music-oriented. My household always had music going on at some point or the other and it was my brother that kind of dragged me into music, willingly (laughs). But I always was following in his footsteps and I always wanted to be a part of whatever he was doing. So naturally I had to do something that he wasn’t doing, which he was always playing drums. So ok, I guess I can sing and play keyboards or play guitar or whatever. And between just playing basketball and music, that’s the only thing that really struck a nerve in me growing up. It was the music that I went into professionally because there was no way I could be a baller (laughs). I wasn’t good enough.
I heard you played trumpet.
I played trumpet in school and we always had a keyboard in the house and I had a knack for picking things up without even knowing what I was playing. I could hear something and just find the notes on whatever instrument I’m playing and learn them playing that way. So for many years I was playing chords and doing things on the keyboards without knowing how or what they actually meant or what they were, what structured them. When I went to junior high school, or middle school rather, I started playing trumpet and I learned how to read music there and it all started making sense. Then I just kind of applied that towards guitar and keyboards and all the other musical things. I learned how to do chordal structures and I basically taught myself. I was so fascinated by it all.When did you start writing actual songs?
First song I think I wrote I was fourteen and I actually re-recorded that song for my first solo album called Prism. I changed things around, it was pretty cheesy and pretty bad, and musically it was very simple but it had all the structure there. So with that in mind, for some reason I was able to remember all the chords and pretty much the melody. And the lyrics were so bad I couldn’t use them. The original song was called “Whisper In My Ear” and it was horrible (laughs). I changed it around and I added the chords and put some orchestration behind it and it actually turned out to be a good song. So I was fourteen when I wrote the first one, the first song, and it’s such an exhilarating thing to actually hear something back that you actually created and you’re pretty much getting off on that and that’s where I decided that this was for me.
What about being on the stage for the first time? How did that feel?
I was twelve the first time I actually had to sing on stage and I wasn’t actually the singer in the band. I was in a band where I was playing keyboards and playing trumpet, cause it was one of those variety things, doing everything from KC & The Sunshine Band to Kool & The Gang to an Elvin Bishop song called “Fooled Around & Fell In Love.” We were doing our first gig, I guess at lunchtime at my junior high school, when the singer, who was in high school, for some reason couldn’t ditch, couldn’t get out of school that day. And we’re setting up the gear going, “Where is he? Where is he?” knowing the bell is about to ring and no singer. And they said, “Jeff, you’re singing,” and I go, “What?” (laughs) They knew I could cause I was singing all the backing vocals and when he wasn’t at rehearsals I would take over on leads. But I was only twelve so my voice hadn’t even truly matured yet. I was still kind of singing like a kid. But we had no choice. We either had to go up there instrumentally or cancel the gig, and we weren’t going to cancel it so that’s when I officially became the singer that day. I guess they canned the other guy when they realized I was actually good enough to keep as a front man (laughs).
What band or musician first got your attention when you first discovered music?
The first initial one was Michael Jackson & The Jackson 5. Michael was only, I think, five years older than me but when he was twelve he was already a superstar. I was still about six or so and it’s usually the same way with most kids, they latch onto the things that are more kid-oriented; like in today’s day and age it’s Justin Bieber and all the teen stuff. So clearly, as a kid, I saw another kid doing what I wanted to do and that was my first influence as a singer and a performer and what to do behind the microphone.
As the years went on, it was bands like Journey and Queen and Toto and Van Halen that was my first initiation into the rock side of things, cause I basically grew up listening to only R&B and pop music. I didn’t really like rock till I saw that some of these other bands were infusing the more R&B/pop sound into the rock thing and it didn’t sound as harsh to me. But as I started getting into the harder rock and heavier things then I leaned towards the Van Halens and then Judas Priest and Iron Maiden and stuff like that. So I pretty much got a well-rounded balance of everything from pop to R&B to hard rock to heavy metal. Kind of what I do today, I kind of infuse all of those different things, no matter what I’m doing or where I’m doing it, there’s always an influence of all those other things in that. I guess that’s what kind of keeps me interested. Your voice sounds amazing, so crisp and clear, like it doesn’t have any glitches in it whatsoever.
I’m sure it doesn’t sound like that now (laughs)
How do you keep your voice healthy?
Part of that was, and by my own choice, my own doing, I never really got into drinking, I never got into alcohol, especially touring and all that. I was always the goody-goody one in the band. I never got into drugs. So while everybody was doing their vices and smoking cigarettes and doing all the things that kind of start taking that instrument away from you, that was one of the things I was able to, I guess, naturally retain my voice with because I wasn’t following that path. And the same goes now. I casually drink, I socially drink, but I didn’t start doing that until my early thirties and it was a good thing since I was able to sustain things. So I kind of live along the same lines of taking care of myself that way. When I’m on tour I try to keep the alcohol down to a minimum because I know that can dry you. They aren’t the best conditions on the road all the time. You can’t always be in a steamy area where you sometimes need that kind of steam to get through things. And a lot of rest. Sleeping is the best cure for a worn out voice.What made you want to revisit W.E.T. and do it again?
We were interested, of course naturally, anything that’s successful they’re going to come to you, the label’s going to come to you and ask for a follow-up. So that was the first initiation of doing a second album. But on our side, the only way we were interested in doing it is if we did it as a band this time, cause the first album was more so done individually. The songs were kind of pre-mapped and pre-written for me, the files sent to me, and I basically connected the dots. I just sang the lyrics and I put my own spin on things, but of course it was already mapped out for me. This time around I told the guys, if we’re going to do it, I want to do it so it sounds and feels like a band and I think we achieved that in the sense of, it just has a more rounded sound to it. There are no fillers on the album, where the first album we could have done something different with that one or that didn’t have to be on the album. But this one we don’t feel that way about any of the songs.
Why did you pick “Learn To Live Again” to introduce the new album?
That has to do with the actual label. They have that final say, they have that final choice, so it’s up to them and they decided both singles. “Love Heals” is the second one. It just got released I think. But what I’m surprised by is the fact that we did videos for both of them that are still in the editing process right now. Why would you release any single without the video to follow it? And they’ve already gone to the second single and we haven’t even put out the first video.
But that’s always a tough one. Everybody in the band has their own ideas of what should be a single, what we feel is a single, and that’s why the label decides, that’s why they get the final choice, because in the end we’re all just going to battle each other for what we feel is the strongest and what should be the lead-off and all that. But initially they are the ones investing so they’re going to make that final decision.
The song “Shot” is pretty powerful, in more ways than one.
I had a band called Talisman for about nineteen years- I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but that’s actually where we got the name W.E.T. from, because there are three bands that are derived from that that actually make up this one. One is Work Of Art and that’s the W, one is Eclipse and that’s the E, and my band, which is Talisman, which is the T. So it’s kind of a montage of the three bands and our sound. And what we all did with those bands, put together, makes the W.E.T. sound. I lost a bass player who was a founder of that band with me back in 2009. His name is Marcel Jacob and he took his own life and some of the lyrics, most of the lyrics, of “Shot” were written for him; it’s written more about what somebody could be going through before they go to the extreme of taking their own life.That must have been very, very painful for you and he was such a wonderful musician. Would you mind sharing something about him?
Absolutely, how can I not. Everything about our personal relationship stemmed from our working relationship. We didn’t start off on the best foot when we were together with Yngwie’s band. We were actually not really that close. Of all the other guys in the band, we were the most distant from each other and the most unlikely to become best of friends, as we did later on in life. But it was one of those things where we didn’t share any musical interests or tastes. And even personality-wise, I mean, we were all kids, but he was always well beyond his years, he was always more intelligent and just past everybody in maturity level; where I was eighteen or nineteen at the time, just laughing at every stupid thing and just being a clown really, as you are when you’re young (laughs). And it just so happened that just by accident he called me to come and do a session which ended up being the first Talisman album, much like the W.E.T. thing. They’re almost identical in how they both got started. The Talisman thing ended up being a nineteen year run and we both changed each other’s lives really, both musically and personally. And that’s what I’m really just shocked and amazed that something like that could happen for two people that couldn’t be any more different.
You brought up Yngwie. While working with him, and all that that entailed, how did that help you be a better band member after that experience?
Working with anybody like that, working with anybody who is difficult to work with or just in general not personable, then it makes you actually work even harder. I’ve always been one to want people to like me and always feel like I’m appreciated and want to be around. When you work with somebody who’s the opposite of that it makes you even more conscious of them when you’re actually working with other people, especially people you’re just meeting for the first time.
Who was the first real rock star that you ever met?
Ooh, that’s a good one. I’m trying to think, trying to go way back (laughs) I think the first one I ever met would have been when I was fifteen or sixteen and it would have been Vince Neil. Back when Motley Crue were still a local LA band, they were a big LA band at this point, but me and my brother were totally into them and they ran this campaign trying to find fans to street team, to go out there and poster up - and this was back in the day when we used to put posters up of our bands and hand out flyers. Basically they’d give you a stack of posters and you put them everywhere. And with that they were giving us free tickets to the show and backstage access to say hello and meet the guys. My brother and I jumped on it immediately and we did exactly that and got to meet the guys in the band briefly.
Are you still doing TSO?
Yes, I just finished my fifth run with them, the winter tour, and I’ve done some spring tours with them. So we’ve done, wow, seven together since I started with them in 2008. And you know what, it’s a lot of fun and the best part of it is it’s pretty low key. As a singer it‘s paradise cause you get to go on tour and you get the big thing with thousands of people, the big arena thing, with the massive tour bus and production, but you don’t have to kill yourself. I mean, they really look after their singers. I’m only singing two or three songs per show. Even if we’re doing matinees, I’m not singing any more than four or five songs a day, based on the workload, cause there are so many singers and not so many vocal songs. The songs that are featured with vocals they keep them to kind of a minimum and they’re really easy to sing and in my range so I’m not going out there and having to push myself too much. It’s a godsend in that sense. It’s kind of a cake walk to do but on the other hand it’s something that’s different than my normal cup of tea. I like to challenge myself and this is not so boring doing the same-old, same-old. TSO is one of those things that keeps me challenged.What are your plans for 2013?
I’m actually going to start in the next couple of months that I have off, it’s the first two month downtime that I’ve got in a long time, so I’m going to start gathering songs, gathering ideas, for the next solo album, because I want to do this now so I can actually start recording in the summertime. So this is my downtime, just to gather up tunes, and in late March, I take off for a European tour with my solo band. We’re going to be doing about four and a half weeks of dates out there. I think I’ve got a few weeks off in May and possibly going back out to do some festival dates. There is even some talk about doing some dates with the surviving members of Talisman and talk about doing some W.E.T. stuff. I mean, the W.E.T. stuff we’re kind of holding off on because we want to make sure people are into the new album and if it does even a fraction of what the first album did, then there’s going to be enough interest there to actually put that band on the road at some point. But it’s a wait and see situation. I don’t want to force it based on the fact that we’re assuming people will like it and jump on it the way they did on the first album. And my summer plans are basically that, just recording, getting as much done as I can with the new album, doing some festival dates, and then I’ve got a little time off before getting ready to bounce back with TSO.